Though Schumacher was initially superior on this tight, twisting little circuit nestling in a mountainous region of the Okayama prefecture, Senna attacked strongly on Friday in a Williams that has made a degree of progress since Schumacher's surprise victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix three weeks ago. Senna, however, was noticeably on the ragged edge as he squeezed ahead of Schumacher's Benetton-Ford to snatch the prime honour. The German's counter-attack was then hampered by an experimental suspension set-up that compromised his car's handling.
Yesterday, giving the lie to expectations of snow, the weather was too warm to allow any significant improvements in lap times. That did not stop Senna or his Williams-Renault team-mate Damon Hill trying to better their speeds, but as Schumacher sat in the cockpit of his car, monitoring their progress, both of them lost control and spun. 'It is worrying,' Patrick Head, the Williams technical director, said, 'because both of them spun at the same corner and using the same set-up. We don't yet know if they were just trying too hard or whether something fundamental is amiss.'
'Unfortunately, the track conditions meant we did not have the exciting final qualifying we had all hoped for,' Schumacher said, 'but I think it is better to be second on the grid and first in the race.'
Though he is sandwiched between the Williams drivers on the grid, the pressure on Senna, the pre-season favourite, is greater. It is some while since the Brazilian began a season 10 points adrift of his main rival after the opening race, and the feeling is that today's encounter will favour the nimble Benetton.
Though the struggle between the king and the young pretender was predictable, other aspects of this race have defied expectations. The organisation has been smooth, the weather clement, and even the bus service ferrying media and spectators along the single-track road leading to the circuit has been a model of Japanese efficiency. Though neither the circuit owner Hajime Tanaka nor Bernie Ecclestone, the vice-president of marketing of the governing body, FIA, would admit it, what many saw as a one-off race may now become a fixture.
A successful race today will almost certainly set the seal on such a deal, but the restrictive nature of the circuit is taxing the teams, who expect a tough encounter over 83 laps. The more pessimistic drivers say there is only one likely place for overtaking. Others, such as Martin Brundle, speak of up to three.
Like his McLaren-Peugeot team-mate Mika Hakkinen, the British driver did not run yesterday, preferring to save his tyres for the race itself, where many anticipate that tyres, tactics and tow trucks will prove the key factors.